Captain America (United States, 1990)

October 04, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Captain America Poster

For younger fans of Marvel movies, it may be hard to remember anything that came before the advent of the MCU. For decades, however, studios had been trying to strike gold with Marvel properties in ways to rival the success experienced by Warner Brothers with Superman (1978) and Batman (1989). In the early 1990s, following the blockbuster triumph of Tim Burton’s interpretation of the Dark Knight, rights holders of various Marvel properties began rolling cameras. Although Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four was made more for the purposes of rights retention, Albert Pyun’s Captain America got a worldwide rollout, although its theatrical reach was limited in many countries, including the United States.

Captain America’s producer, Manahem Golan, had his fingerprints all over comic book movies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and almost never in a good way. Golan and his partner, Yoram Globus, purchased the rights to Superman when the Salkinds offered them for sale. The result was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which permanently ended Christopher Reeve’s reign as the Man of Steel. Golan/Globus then turned their attention to Spider-Man, which remained under Golan’s aegis before, during, and after the dissolution of Canon Pictures. During the roughly eight years he owned the rights, several iterations were devised (including one to be helmed by Albert Pyun and another crafted by James Cameron). Ultimately, Golan never got Spider-Man off the ground but he did get a low-budget Captain America made.

Both this movie and the 2011 MCU film (Captain America: The First Avenger) tell the origin story of how Steve Rogers becomes Captain America and ends up in modern times thanks to an inadvertent cryo-sleep. Both feature the Red Skull as the main villain. But that’s where the similarities end. The 1990 Captain America splits its time between the 1940s and the 1990s. The First Avenger transpires mostly during World War II with only a brief prologue and epilogue in the 2010s. And, although no one would accuse The First Avenger of either great screenwriting or top-notch acting, it is superior to the 1990 film in almost every meaningful way. Pyum’s version is worth watching only for die-hard fans of the franchise or those with an insatiable curiosity to see how the iconic character was imagined 21 years prior to being deemed ready for a significant budget.

One of the biggest failings of Captain America is that the title character doesn’t seem much like a superhero. The costume looks silly, although that could be more about how it’s worn because it’s not fundamentally that different from the one donned by Chris Evans. In this movie, it looks more like something a kid would put on for Halloween than an actual superhero costume. Also, although it’s stated that Captain America has superhuman strength, that’s rarely in evidence. He seems a lot more like Kick-Ass than someone who would become a key member of The Avengers. And, presumably because actor Scott Paulin didn’t want to spend 3 hours each day in the makeup chair, we only get to see The Red Skull’s red skull briefly (during the 1940s sequences); it’s later covered up by a scarred human face.

The fight scenes are poorly choreographed and inexpertly shot. Prior to making Captain America, director Albert Pyun’s thin resume didn’t inspire confidence that he could elevate this comic book hero above more than B-grade schlock. His best-known title to-date was Cyborg, a bad movie that at least proved to be a decent showcase for Jean-Claude Van Damme. In terms of physicality, however, Matt Salinger is a significant step down from Van Damme and lacks the same commitment to stunt work. It shows. From a testosterone-adrenaline standpoint, Captain America falls flat. It’s also weak when it comes to special effects and pyrotechnics.

The movie treats the World War II scenes as an extended prologue. They serve three purposes: to show the sad events leading to the birth of The Red Skull, to show how polio survivor Steve Rodgers became Captain America using a variation of the same serum, and to present the first conflict between the two which leads to Captain America being buried in artic ice. Less than a half hour into the 95-minute movie, we’re in “modern times.” In the 1990s, Captain America must once again face off against The Red Skull, now a Machiavellian international criminal, to save the American President, Tom Kimball (Ronny Cox), from a kidnapping/brainwashing plot.

Lacking the funds to hire a star-studded cast, the producers brought in several recognizable character actors in supporting roles. Most don’t have much screen time but were likely well-compensated for their brief appearances. These include Ned Beatty (as the President’s childhood friend), Darren McGavin (as the war-mongering, traitorous General Fleming), Michael Nouri (as Lt. Col. Louis in the 1940s scenes), and Melinda Dillon (as Steve’s mother, also in the 1940s scenes). The leads, Matt Salinger and Scott Paulin, lacked name recognition (and the passage of time hasn’t corrected that – both have made careers out of doing guest spots on a myriad of TV shows).

Would Captain America look better had nearly all of its considerable faults not been exposed as a result of a high-profile, A-list re-do? Probably not; it’s a weak comic book adaptation by any measure (although not as bad as the later Christopher Reeve Supermans). The biggest flaw isn’t so much the acting, the directing, or the screenwriting (all of which deserve demerits) but that the movie’s meager budget doesn’t allow it to look cinematic. It’s no bigger or better than Marvel’s two late 1970s live-action superhero TV shows, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, and could easily be an early pilot for a couple of fledgling TV network wannabees that came along in the mid-1990s, UPN and The WB. Such comparisons make it hard to take Captain America seriously; the penny-pinching of the producers hamstrung an already questionable production and consigned it to the obscurity of the direct-to-video bins at Blockbusters where it has deservedly gone mostly unnoticed. Anyone wanting to see a Captain America origin story is hereby directed to The First Avenger, which at least has the decency to be moderately entertaining.

Captain America (United States, 1990)

Director: Albert Pyun
Cast: Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty, Darren McGavin, Michael Nouri, Scott Paulin, Kim Gillingham, Melinda Dillon
Home Release Date: 2022-10-04
Screenplay: Stephen Tolkin, based on the characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Cinematography: Philip Alan Waters
Music: Barry Goldberg
U.S. Distributor: 21st Century Film Corporation
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Home Release Date: 2022-10-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Genre: Action/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1